By Chris Harris in Monaco
"No matter how big the percentage is, we are going to give absolutely everything to make the stats lie." - Arsene Wenger
Arsene Wenger ended his pre-match press conference on Monday with a breezy message to the assembled media: "Have a good night at the casino!" One suspects the Arsenal manager will need to do some gambling of his own come Tuesday.
Wenger is back on familiar territory in Monte Carlo, the scene of his first managerial triumphs as the coach of Monaco in the late eighties and early nineties. The Frenchman made his name in the principality but, of all the games he has overseen at the Stade Louis II, this one may represent his stiffest test.
Arsenal's first-leg performance against Monaco has left them almost without a leg to stand on in the Champions League. A 3-1 home defeat - sealed by a sucker-punch as the Gunners chased an equaliser - means they require a comeback of unprecedented scope to advance to the quarter-finals.
No team has turned around a two-goal deficit in the away leg of a Champions League tie - only two have survived after one-goal home defeats - and Arsenal know they must score at least three times against a Monaco side that hasn't shipped that many on home soil since September 2011.
And yet hope springs eternal. The Gunners are in rude health after 12 wins in 14 matches in all competitions, and Wenger spies a glimmer of hope.
"The statistics don’t matter," he said. "They are against us. The result from the first leg is against us, we’re conscious of that.
"But no matter how big the percentage is, we are going to give absolutely everything to make the stats lie. That’s our desire and that’s our belief we can do it."
Wenger welcomes Gabriel back into his squad for the second leg but much of the pre-match attention surrounded a man charged with scoring the goals, not stopping them.
Olivier Giroud had a first leg to forget - missing chances he has been snaffling all season - but the France international has been lethal ever since. Giroud's deadlock-breaker against West Ham United on Saturday was his sixth in seven games and spoke of a man brimming with confidence.
"Giroud is in better condition. He got over the disappointment of the first leg and will do everything to be at the top level"
Arsenal will need that Giroud on Tuesday night - not the one Monaco saw at Emirates Stadium - and Wenger believes his compatriot will deliver.
"He owes a great performance for himself as all the greatest strikers want to do as well as possible on the pitch," said the manager. "He missed a few opportunities in the first leg but what striker doesn't miss an opportunity?
"I really think he is at the international level. I believe this. He has the right mental level. We have to trust the people who play at this kind of level.
"We will need to be really creative up front in order to create some opportunities," added Wenger. "We had a lot of chances in the first leg actually, more than people said. It is true that Giroud didn't manage to convert. But now he is in better condition. He got over the disappointment of the first leg and will do everything to be at the top level."
Putting aside the high stakes, this is a poignant return for Wenger.
The Arsenal manager was animated as he made his way to Stade Louis II for his press conference, pointing out familiar sights and signing autographs before braving the rain to test the pitch.
"For me, it is very special moment," he said. "I was a young coach here at Monaco… I have a lot of respect for Monaco and I want to thank the whole club."
"It is always very difficult to play against French teams. Having said that, our record with Arsenal in France is absolutely outstanding"
But Wenger's wistfulness only went so far. "Tomorrow will be a Champions League game, and the experience I have gained can help me to make the right decision," he added. "I am able to separate the emotion of coming back and the importance of the game. I am here for work and my job is for my club to win."
As for that pitch, early fears that the surface was less than pristine were allayed by Wenger himself. "It is a bit of a concern if it rains a bit but I just went up there and it’s good, very good," he said.
"When it rains in the south of France, it rains, it doesn’t drizzle. They had to postpone a game recently against Montpellier because of the game but apparently the conditions will not be bad on the rain front."
Of much greater concern are Arsenal's opponents. Notoriously stingy in defence, Monaco have lost two of their last 22 games, conceding just seven goals in the process. They're the kind of stats to make George Graham purr, and Wenger thinks the French league has enhanced its reputation this season.
"The French level is very good," he said. "I always had the highest respect for the French league, because when we play against a French team we always have a mountain to climb as they are physically ready, well organised and I think in France they are up for Europe as well, very focused on it.
"It is always very difficult to play against French teams. Having said that, our record with Arsenal in France is absolutely outstanding. We have always done well here."
Optimists will point to that soothing record in France, which reads P10 W7 D3 L0. But each of those Arsenal victories came by a single goal - and that won't suffice at Stade Louis II.
We've been here before, of course. The Gunners attempted similar rescue acts against Barcelona, Milan and Bayern Munich (twice) in the last four years and came up short each time. But a supposedly untouchable Bayern were made to sweat two seasons ago and Wenger believes Monaco can be put under similar pressure - even if Arsenal don't score early this time.
|Arsenal: Wilshere (ankle), Debuchy (shoulder), Arteta (ankle and calf), Oxlade-Chamberlain (hamstring)
Monaco: Raggi (knee), Bakazyoko (hamstring), Traore (shin)
"Ideally you want always to score early goals," said the Frenchman, "but I believe you just have to play with full power, not forget your organisation and structure in the team and the goals come when they come. We must focus on the quality of your game on both sides, defensively and offensively. Nobody can predict when the goals will come.
"You can expect us to show a different side to our game. We totally missed the first leg against Monaco, which was surprising. We did not play well, but sometimes in life if you miss a chance you do not have a second chance, We do, so we will play it fully."
That flicker of hope will keep Arsenal going in Monte Carlo. Local journalists at the press conference dusted off a French saying that, "you never sell a bear's skin until you kill him". Monaco are in the box seat, but doubts will creep in if the second leg starts slipping away from them.
For Arsenal, this is not 'mission impossible' - more 'mission improbable'. They have won nine games this season by a scoreline that would take them into the last eight, and they won't lack conviction.
"The desire is there, the belief is there," concluded Wenger. "Football is not predictable but I can predict the desire and belief will be there to do well. We play in the Champions League last 16, we have experience and we know that anything can happen. As long as we believe we can do it, I am confident we will."
Arsenal will wear their change strip of blue tonight, and their manager's advice is clear: don't put it all on red just yet.
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